Thursday, 5 June 2014

Where am I? Over Here!

I'm guest blogging on Isabel Costello's excellent Literary Sofa today. It's a rather brutal (and exposing) examination of my journey from naive hopeful to hardened, cynical but still determined unpublished novelist.

As well as guest bloggers, Isabel has great book reviews. Have a look at her Summer Reads list for inspiration for your holiday reading.

Well, what are you waiting for?  Get over there!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Later is Now.

I'm writing a novel. You know this already, especially if you follow me on Twitter. I never let a WIP crisis go untweeted. It's coming up to a year since I started (properly) working on the book, so it seemed like a good time to look back at what I've learned. There were two big lessons for me, one at the beginning of the process of writing the first draft, and one at the end.

1. Writing a Novel is a Very Much Like Eating an Elephant.

Which is to say, one bite at a time. As a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool short story and flash fiction writer, the idea of writing a book seemed not so much daunting as unsurmountable. I struggled with anything over 2,000 words. How could I write something at least forty times longer?

The answer was not to look the whole thing in the eye, just at what was on my plate at any given moment (I'm not sure how much longer I can sustain this eating metaphor. For one thing, it's making me hungry). My eureka moment came when I decided for the umpteenth time to get to grips with Scrivener. I'd had it on my laptop for years. I had various first chapters written in Word. I didn't see how the two things worked together.

So I set the false-start chapters to one side and started over, this time using Scrivener. And the thing about Scrivener is that each scene is a separate document. Each scene. Each. Scene. Light bulb moment. I needed to write this book one scene at a time. I didn't need to think about whole chapters, let alone the whole book. Just one scene at a time.

This is perfect for me, because I'm a pantser, not a plotter. I had the vaguest idea of what I wanted my book to be about, but I knew the story and the characters would evolve in the writing. I had a clear idea what my opening scene would be, so I just sat down and wrote it. Then I asked myself what the next scene needed to do. Did it need to advance the story? Introduce more characters? Backstory? Flashback? Develop existing characters? Set up upcoming key scenes that I already had in mind?

In this way, the novel grew, in bites of between 1,000 and 2,000 words. Sometimes I'd be in the middle of writing a scene and realise it wouldn't work unless I added another scene earlier in the novel. The beauty of Scrivener is that you can skip back and slide in the bits you are missing. Or move scenes around when you realise they are in the wrong place. The key for me was knowing exactly what each scene was for before I wrote it. All those years of short story writing taught me that every word has to earn its keep. That's true whether there are 2,000 words or 80,000 words.

However, the more words there are, the harder it is to know which ones are really pulling their weight, which brings me on to:

2. What Do You Mean It's Crap?

The oft repeated advice about writing a first draft is to just get it done. And to get it done, you have to allow it to be crap.

Now, at first this made no sense to me. Why would I want to write something crap? When I write short stories, they don't differ much from first to final draft. Everything that is good about them is there in the first draft. Everything after that is polishing and perfecting.

Pfft, I thought. The first draft of my novel is not going to be crap. It's going to be refined, exquisitely written, needing but the lightest of editing touches.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's crap. Or rather, it's the kernel of a good book wrapped in crap (I'm liking this metaphor even less than the elephant one. Moving on…)

My characters are underdeveloped. Many scenes are underwritten, while in other places the prose is overwrought. Exposition has snuck in while my back was turned. At least 10 per cent of the words are superfluous.

Am I downcast? Not a bit (well, okay, maybe a little bit). The analogy I like best is this: when you're writing a first draft, you're just pouring sand into a box, to shape into castles later.

There are good things about editing, like stumbling across bits of writing that are really quite good. Like finding out how clever my subconscious is, making connections, echoing themes throughout the book without me even realising it. Like allowing myself to spend an hour or more on one small passage, staring out the window, writing, deleting, writing again, not worrying about clocking up the word count but making every word the right one.

Because that's the key difference between writing and editing. When you're writing,  you can always come back and fix it up later. When you're editing, later is now.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The First Draft Blues

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, someone told me they believed I'd one day be a writer. I believed it too. That fact that the person who told me this went on to be a successful and award-nominated novelist and screen-writer themselves only reinforced my confidence that one day I too would be a published novelist.

Gradually, though, it dawned on me, that I'd have to actually write a book to make that happen.

And then followed years and years of not writing a book and hating myself for it, of waking up every January 1st and thinking: 'Here I go again, not writing my book for another year'.

I did eventually start writing, of course, but it was short fiction. The shorter the better. I had some success and thought, okay, this is what I'm good at, this is okay, I'm still a writer. I told anyone who would listen (or asked) that I was pretty sure I'd never write a novel, because it just wasn't where my talents lay.

And then I had an idea for a book. Still I procrastinated, but the idea wouldn't go away.

Last April, my husband bought me a new laptop and gave me a deadline: 20,000 words by the end of the summer, or the laptop went to my teenage daughter. Ah, he knows me so well. I exceeded his target a month early and I was on my way. Writing a book.

Some ten months after starting, I've nearly finished the first draft of my novel. I should be cock-a-hoop, right? Punching the air, typing THE END in the biggest, boldest, most italic-y font I can find.

But I'm not. And that's okay.

The thing is, I have a lot of words, but they don't feel like a book yet.

I have a sort-of story, my protagonist goes on a journey, but I know it needs more narrative drive.

I've discovered what my book is about in the process of writing it, but I know I need to draw out the themes, strengthen them, weave them through the fabric of my book so it's less like crochet and more like a tightly-woven damask that shows different colours and patterns depending on how you turn it in the light.

I have characters, quite a few of them. Most of them are engaging and interesting. Almost all of them are more engaging and interesting than my protagonist. I need to make her more than just a sounding board, less reactive and more proactive in her own life. I need to find out what is unique about her AND what makes her like everyone else.

I have important scenes that are woefully underwritten and less important scenes that go on and on and on. I need to look at the balance of my book, the rhythm, the pace.

I need to do all these things, and more, before the big heap of words I've put together resembles anything like a book. And I'm itching to get on with it. Getting to the end of the first draft is a notable achievement, but it feels more like a mid-point than anything else. Hence the lack of air-punching.

My aim is to have a solid second draft done by the summer. If you hear whooping across the internet sometime in late June or early July, it'll probably be me, typing THE END.

And then, following feedback, I'll get cracking with the third draft. And maybe, just maybe, by then I'll have written a book.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Do Not Be Afraid: When Self-publishing Turns Good

Two things I heard on the radio yesterday made me think of the Stories for Homes short story anthology. One was a feature about the potential shift in power in publishing from the established publishing houses to agents and, ultimately, authors. With the rise of self-publishing, the question of who judges what is fit to be published has become a vexed one.

The other thing I heard was a review of this year's batch of Christmas singles. The reviewer all but apologised for reviewing the charity singles in terms of their musical worth, as if anything done for charity should be above criticism for quality.

Which brings me to Stories for Homes. It is a bumper anthology, with more than sixty stories, all donated by the authors, all on the theme of 'home'. All the profits from this book go directly to support the homeless charity, Shelter. I was one of the proof-readers for the book (as well as having a story included) and one of the things that struck me was the sheer quality of the writing. A book that is the result of an open call for submissions via Twitter and Facebook, produced in a matter of months by passionate volunteers - surely it can't be a good read, can it? And yet it is full of powerful, poignant, funny, clever, and moving writing.

One of the secrets to this quality is the fact that the book has two editors, Sally Swingewood and Debi Alper, who read all, yes all, the submissions. After many hours, cigarettes, cups of coffee, and a few cakes, they selected the best stories. There were a lot of them. And time was short. So (and this is the genius part), every writer was paired up with another writer to peer-review and edit each other's stories.

This is another feature of the new world of self-publishing and social media - the rise of the 'reader', by which I mean the trusted people who get to read and comment on my writing before I unleash it on the world. Thanks to the internet, I have a bunch of fabulous writers that I turn to when I need a properly critical eye turned on my words. And I do the same for them. I've had the pleasure of reading several novels recently pre-submission to agents. Writers, it turns out, are generous people. Generous with their time, their support, their skills.

And so it proved with Stories for Homes. Some people were new to the idea of peer-editing and were probably quite nervous. Others, like me, were old hands. We got stuck in, the stories were edited and polished and then they were sent back to Sally and Debi. Then began the Herculean task of deciding the running order, designing the cover and getting it ready for publishing on Kindle. The Facebook group was (and still is) alive with discussion - finessing the design and blurb, devising marketing strategies, exchanging skills and expertise.

It was at this point I offered to proof-read the ebook version. I didn't have very high expectations, to be honest. I've been involved in anthologies before. The quality of the stories is sometimes, well, 'variable' would be the polite way to put it. Sometimes I wonder what on earth the editors were thinking. Obviously my story would be top notch, but some of the others? Sheesh. Not so with Stories for Homes. As I read Mandy Berriman's exquisite opening story 'A Home Without Moles', I knew this would be a charity anthology with a difference.

A few years ago, people would have turned their noses up at a self-published book, even if it was for charity.  But I'm sitting at my kitchen table looking at a fat paperback book, with a gorgeous cover and even more gorgeous content, and I'm thoroughly proud to be a part of it.

Oh, yes, did I mention? Stories for Homes is now available in paperback. You can buy it from Createspace or Amazon. Every single penny of profit is paid directly to Shelter. Every. Penny.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Am I too old to be a new novelist?

So, I'm finally writing THAT novel. The one I said I'd never write, then said I might write, then decided I really ought to write. I'm approaching half-way through the first draft and the thing is taking on a life of its own. It feels like I'm about to start a down-hill gallop through the second half and towards the end. Even so, there's probably at least another year's worth of work to get it to a submittable standard. And then, imagining I got an agent and publisher IMMEDIATELY (because life totally works like that, right?), another eighteen months or so after that before I can realistically expect to see an actual book with my name on it in a bookshop. Being hugely optimistic (if not deluded), we are talking two, maybe three years before I become a debut published novelist.

I'll be in my late-forties by then. And this is something that has given me much pause for thought recently.

The internet is awash with opportunities for 'new' writers. What is a 'new' writer? Is it someone who has just started writing? Or someone who has just started submitting and getting published? You'll also see plenty of references to 'aspiring' writers. FYI, I'm not 'aspiring' to write - I actually do it. I'm 'aspiring' to be published. Quite different. Another favourite soubriquet (sick bags at the ready) is the 'budding' writer. Pur-lease. Why don't you just say 'nubile' and be done with it?

Because my suspicion is that all these terms - new, budding, aspiring - are really euphemisms for 'young'. A new 'young' writer with talent must be a more enticing prospect to a publisher than an older one, by sheer dint of the fact that they have all those writing years ahead of them. More books, more money for everyone.

And yet, how many people beavering away at their first novels are in their forties, their fifties, and beyond, into retirement age? The writer Alison Wells suggested the need for a writing competition for older writers, the entry requirement being that: 'We were doing other things'. She was joking - sort of. I've seen plenty of writing competitions open to people under a certain age. I've never seen one where you have to be OVER a certain age to enter. Why not? Is it just the economics of publishing? Or is it the assumption that young writers have talent but no gumption and need help to get started? We wrinklies can fend for ourselves. And anyway, we probably have jobs and partners that mean we don't need to write for a living, we're just hobbyists. Some of us might get lucky and get our little pet projects published, but really, if we were serious about being writers, shouldn't we have started sooner?

Now, I know all the stories about writers who started late (such as Mary Wesley) or had late resurgences (Barbara Pym), but I wonder if they would have been given a chance today. I don't know the answer to that. I don't know if agents and publishers really care about how old a writer is when they take them on, and I'd love to hear that they don't.

Meanwhile, I do have regrets about not starting sooner. And yet the things I was doing while I wasn't discovering that I was a writer are the things that make me a writer now: living, loving, grieving, make new people inside my own body, laughing, crying, fighting, watching, wondering, regretting, and above all, wondering what it's all about. The first novel I'm writing now is not the first novel I would have written in my twenties, or my thirties. I can't change that, and I really hope that it won't count against me as and when I start sending it out into the world.

At least I can be sure that by then no one would dare describe me as 'budding'.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Magnolia Drifts - A Poem

In honour of National Poetry Day, I thought I'd post my one and only poem. It's a bit lonely all by itself on my hard drive.

Magnolia Drifts

Magnolia drifts
on an Easterly breeze.
Nestled up to creamy lilac,
it is coconut ice.
East meets West in the suburbs.

I go West and wake to darkness.
There are deeper rhythms that will not be reset.
I am adrift.
My magnolia waits, blooms, fades and waits again.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Long and Short of Longlists

Long lists, what are they good for? Absolutely nothing...

This was the rather tongue-in-cheek comment I made as part of The Writing Competition Entrants' Manifesto, a plea to writing competition organisers to make entering their competitions just a little less stressful for us poor writers. It was a throw-away comment, just putting it out there that I don't like long lists. Little did I know that it would be the part of the Manifesto that attracted most debate.

There are two types of long list: those that appear before the final results are announced, and those that appear after. To be clear, it is the first that I really object to. Waiting for results of competitions can be stressful. Some people get positively obsessed, checking their email, stalking the organisers on Twitter and Facebook. Personally, I like to enter a competition and, as much as possible, forget about it. It helps that I enter a lot of competitions, so there is always the next one to think about. I keep a spreadsheet to track entries and make a note on there when the results are expected, just so I can double check. But generally I try not to think about it too much.

However, if I find out a few weeks before the results come out that I am on the long list, it's so much harder to forget about it. Knowing I've crossed that first hurdle makes it all but impossible not to indulge in those little daydreams where I am the awards ceremony, designer be-frocked, perfectly coiffed and shod, on the arm of Ryan Gosling - oh, sorry, that's my Oscar ceremony fantasy. Moving on...

I find the disappointment of not making the short list or the winner's enclosure worse if I know I'm on the long list. The punch feels a little harder. This may not be entirely logical, but it's the way it feels to me. And the agony of waiting is ratcheted up, another tightening of the ropes on the rack.

For media-savvy competition organisers, publishing a long list before the final results is a great way to get people talking. It's a smart move, even if it does add to the agony of those waiting. The inaugural Bath Short Story Award has been notable for its great use of Twitter. Friendly, approachable, happy to answer random writerly questions, they have ensured that people are talking about them for the right reasons. And with their long list due to be published in a few days time, they have got us all talking about it, even me, a long list refusenik. So the pre-results long list is here to stay. I just have to find a way of dealing with it.

Finding myself on the other sort of long list, the one that is published after all the winners, runners-up etc have been announced, is a different experience altogether. In the past, I've regarded it as a consolation prize. I've had the burn of disappointment, but there is the balm. I recently found myself on the long list for the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize 2013. Fish are famed for their looooong long lists. In this case, it was a list of 348. I was pleased to be there, of course, but when lovely writerly tweeps tweeted to congratulate me, I was a bit dismissive. It's such a long list, where's the achievement in that?

As it turns out, getting on the long list, any long list, is a bigger achievement than I ever realised. Writers who have been on the other side of the judging table tweeted to tell me that the cut from the entire field to the long list is the hardest for judges, and any story that ends up on the long list is a potential winner. As Tracey Upchurch recounts on her blog, she used to think being long listed was like being called someone's 'third favourite girlfriend', but Tania Hershman put her right, pointing out that the long list separates the great stories from the not-so-great. Who wouldn't want to be on a list like that? According to Vanessa Gebbie, getting on the long list means a story 'has legs', one of the most encouraging things you can hear about your work.

So the next time I find myself on a long list, I won't look on it as a consolation prize. Being on the list means that someone, somewhere, read my story amongst many, many others and thought it might possibly be a winner. That's quite an achievement.